Following on from last week’s article I find myself still considering the horror genre. As I am not a fan of Zombies!!! (you might have been able to tell), I have been considering what makes a horror game enjoyable. Thankfully, I have the answer.
Personally, I am not a fan of horror as a genre – either in novels or movies. It’s not a blanket dislike, but more a weariness with some of the common tropes and stereotypes that emerge from a lot of lazy slasher films and jump scare movies. I do enjoy the classics – a lot of the Universal monster movies and Hammer horror films, because they were the origins of this type of cinematic fiction and we can see where the influences come from. And my favourite horror game harks back to those old movies and purposefully adapts the genre’s clichés for its own ends.
A group of friends explore a spooky old abandoned house. Little do they know that within, something evil is waiting for them and intends their demise. What’s more one of their friends is in league with the dark forces lurking within. The game is Betrayal at House on the Hill.
The game was originally released in 2004, with a second edition in 2010. You can select from a group of 12 characters, who all are recognisable characters from horror fiction such as scientists, fortune tellers, high school jock and creepy little girl. Each is represented by four statistics – Might, Speed, Knowledge and Sanity. These stats tell you how many dice you have to roll when making a test (so might Might of 3 give you three dice). You have to reach a required target number set by the situation and using the games special dice (six sided dice which show values of 0, 1 and 2 on their sides). Movement is based solely on the character’s Speed (no roll and move – hurrah!). Your character dies if any of your stats fall to the lowest point, but cannot fall to this point until the Haunt occurs (more on this later)
The house of the title is set up using tiles – you randomly draw face down tiles from a stack as you explore the house and add them to the rooms. It is set over three floors – ground, upper and basement and certain rooms can only be placed on certain floors. Each room has different features, but they normally require you to draw a card of differing types. Items which give your explorers useful pieces of equipment; Events which normally are the supernatural creatures of the house showing themselves and finally Omens.
Omens are where the story of the game comes to life. Each is a powerful artefact or occupant of the house that you encounter. Every time an Omen is revealed you must roll to see if the Haunt occurs. The Haunt is a bad thing as this is the final confrontation between the players and the house (including the player that turns on the group). The chances of the Haunt occurring increase based on the number of Omens that have happened. This builds the tension nicely, as each Omen is met with the worried glances of players around the table as to what may happen next …
When the Haunt occurs that players then have to look up in the Traitor’s Guide what they are facing and who becomes the traitor. The players then separate and read through the scenario in two separate books. One tells the traitor player how to win and the forces at their disposal. The other tells the remaining players how to survive. The Haunts are based on traditional horror tales and can involve zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghosts and all manner of other things that go bump in the night.
I’ll be honest; Betrayal at House on the Hill is not a perfect game. Firstly the components are not the best. Whilst the room tiles, books and cards are nicely made; the survivor miniatures that come with it are pretty flimsy and poorly painted. And the rest of the monsters are just represented by generic cardboard pieces (which is understandable based on the wide variety of monsters you could come across). Compared to something like Mansions Of Madness with its models for every monster, it can leave the game board looking a little dry.
The worst offenders are the player stat cards which are pentagonal and record stats using plastic sliders on each side. The sliders are very loose and the gaps between the numbers make it not clear exactly which number it is pointing at. Thankfully, there are a number of free third party smartphone apps that you can use to keep character records more accurately (seriously – if you have this game, you need these apps).
Secondly the nature of the game means that balance is an issue. Someone can just draw all the best pieces of equipment for the scenario, become the traitor and then it becomes very tricky to take them down. Or the traitor can be the poor sod that the house has screwed over for the entirety of the exploration and gets killed very quickly. Not all the Haunts are easy to complete and some people may find it unfair.
However, none of these gripes compare to how much fun the game is. My friends and I have found that no matter the scenario, we have enjoyed it. This is despite one of us getting killed very quickly, or the game devolving into all-out war between the players as we realise not everyone is getting out of this alive. Particularly memorable if Keith’s super fun happy slide tactic of distracting zombies using a coal chute to the basement (if you don’t get that reference – shame on you).
And in many ways, this demonstrates what the ultimate joy of Betrayal at House on the Hill is – the narrative. This is a game which builds stories. The sort of conversation you will have in your gaming group that starts with the words ‘Do you remember the time when …?’ And you will be hard pressed to run out of these stories, as the game comes with over 50 individual haunts. Each time should be a different game, with a different way to win and a different traitor.
There is a very plausible argument that this game fails as a horror game. It rarely evokes feelings of dread or menace. There are clear moments of tension over the rolls of the dice and particularly when the Haunt may be getting near. But I cannot remember anyone getting spooked by the game. That may be a failing of board games as a whole and better people than I have debated this point (the folks at Who Dares Rolls had an entire podcast on this so I would recommend their discussion).
But what you do get with Betrayal on House at the Hill is great way to spend an hour or two with your friends sharing an experience that is unpredictable and fun. And compared to last week’s offering, when you build a social experience around a game which doesn’t feel like a grind and every comes out of it saying ‘I can’t wait until the next time we play’, perhaps that is the best recommendation I can give for a game.